LETTERS FROM ELK CITY by Michael Harris  Tidemann


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A sprawling drama spanning several centuries that dramatizes the treatment of African slaves and Native Americans throughout history. 

In the present day, Billy Davis inherits land in Oregon’s Willamette Valley that’s been in his family for 170 years. However, it’s a financial burden to maintain given his work limitations; as a consequence of losing part of his leg serving in Afghanistan, he collects disability, and he’s fallen perilously behind on the plot’s taxes. Billy happens upon a jug while digging on his property and also finds a ring that turns out to be surprisingly valuable. Tidemann (The Elk and Other Stories, 2013, etc.) chronicles the tangled history of the ring and the land in a sometimes-confusing tale that begins with the journey of English explorer Sir Francis Drake to Oregon in 1579. Drake liberates Maria, a beautiful African slave, from a Spanish ship that he commandeers, and the two have a torrid affair. He gives her an amulet that ends up, many years later, in the possession of Wallace O’Malley, a wealthy businessman and slave owner in the American South. Wallace’s daughter, Carissa, falls in love with Philip Davis, whose father, Corville, is Billy’s great-great-great-great-grandfather and the owner of a hotel on the land that Billy later occupies. The bond between Philip and Carissa is threatened by the political tumult of the Civil War; Philip is opposed to slavery and joins the Union Army to fight against it, while Wallace devotes himself to defending that grim institution. Philip is an ardent defender of the rights of Native Americans, as well—his best friend, Little Elk, is a Klickitat—and he’s drawn into a brewing conflict when a wave of white settlers comes to Oregon. 

Tidemann’s mastery of the complex nuances of multiple historical periods is extraordinary. Also, his prose style, especially in dialogue, is consistently faithful to the period in which it occurs—no mean feat, considering the frequent vacillations between various eras. The author’s ambition is breathtaking as he attempts to weave several competing storylines into one coherent narrative—a grand drama that encompasses no less than the entire history of the nation. However, Tidemann indulges in so many different subplots that the novel becomes an increasingly tedious challenge to follow, and the convolution is only exacerbated by the aforementioned temporal swings. Also, the author’s attraction to overarching moral lessons tends to result in clichéd contrivances, such as Wallace’s explanation for his devotion to slavery: “I owned human beings, because that was the only way I could keep from feeling owned myself.” Furthermore, the author’s impressive desire to weave a seamless fictional tapestry out of so many sundry parts results in some clumsily forced elements, as when Billy’s wife, Sarah, writes a doctoral dissertation on the “Early European contact with indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest.” Many of the digressive plotlines could simply have been discarded, including one that follows the relationship of a Union officer and Little Elk’s sister, Sidnayoh.

A panoramic epic freighted with too many subplots. 

Pub Date: May 28th, 2018
ISBN: 978-1-984978-09-7
Page count: 348pp
Publisher: Northwest Passages
Program: Kirkus Indie
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